October 28, 2010

Signs Point Business in New Direction

Ken and Terry Stevenson with their prototype custom bench.
By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- For nearly a dozen years, Ken and Terry Stevenson have quietly made a modest living manufacturing custom signs from a workshop garage on Desmarais Avenue.
Incidentally, there’s no sign posted out front advertising their mom-and-pop operation. “What’s the point?” says Ken Stevenson. “We’re on a dead-end street.” 
He knows the true purpose of a well-made sign is to be a silent salesman, drawing in customers and marking territory along well-traveled roadways. 
And so, for more than 50 years he’s relied on repeat business and word of mouth to keep the two-person operation going. He and his wife moved from the Fairways apartments to their own home 11 years ago. Working from a shop has made things easier. 
But easier is not what motivates Stevenson. 
“I’m an artist. I do everything by hand. No one wants to take the time to learn. Terry has learned a lot, and she’ll take over the business someday. But we had to do something else to anchor our business. Between the economy, and people moving away from handmade signs, we found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands,” says Stevenson, who will be 69 next month. 
Terry, who will turn 59 around the same time, had a big idea a couple of years ago, something she thought might give them a chance to combine what they know and love with a new business venture, a new niche in an otherwise diminishing specialty. “I was going to visit my mother’s grave in Salem, and I was putting a photograph there in a plastic cover, but I had to keep replacing it. It didn’t last through the winter,” said Terry Stevenson. “It got me thinking: What if we made memorial plaques that Kenny could put any kind of image on — a photograph, something scenic. They would never wear out, and it would be something beautiful, something that people would want.” 
That idea led the couple to consider other ways personalized plaques could be used, which led them to the idea of hand-manufacturing custom park benches from cedar and powder-coated aluminum, where a plaque becomes the personal touch — featuring a business logo, a historic marker, a memorial tribute or just to dedicate a family’s territory under the old oak tree. 
“If you’re Dunkin’ Donuts, you can put a Dunkin’ Donuts logo on there. If you’re a town, like Derry, you could place some benches along the main street, and have plaques depicting different aspects of the town’s history,” said Ken Stevenson. 
“Or up north, where the historic railroads are, you could have benches featuring different trains,” said his wife. “We fell in love with the trains up there. We visit North Conway just about every year. We can just picture these benches up there in parks, on the walking trails or along the street.” 
While their sign business slowed over the past two years, they made good use of their down time, doing their homework and settling on specifications that mirror a century-old deacon’s bench they have in their living room. 
“It’s comfortable. The seat is about 16 3 ⁄ 4- inches deep. And the cedar is really beautiful, and surprisingly comfortable. The frame is so light I can carry it around myself, which is a plus for businesses that might want to bring the bench in at night for security reasons, and it could ship anywhere,” said Terry Stevenson. “But at the same time it could easily be permanently bolted — it’s sturdy and strong.” 
The process is painstaking. Ken Stevenson uses a computer to create a design template, which is transferred onto the plaques, made of Celtex, a durable plastic. He can also hand-paint a design or add lettering, and benches are painted and/or stained to order. They rely on a handful of local businesses for welding and powder coating. 
So far they have created a prototype bench, displaying one of the old trains they love, along with their name. 
Watching the Stevensons at work, talking about their new venture, is a study in true love and friendship. They really do finish each other’s sentences, and brag about the other’s personal and professional qualities. Although they’ve only been married for 16 years, they were friends for 20 years before that. She has learned everything she knows about the sign business by watching him work. He learned the business from the late Pete Czerepak, when he was just a kid growing up in Massachusetts. 
“I always knew it was what I was going to do for the rest of my life, from the first time I saw a guy painting a sign at the bus stop outside my window. Pete told me, ‘You’re never gonna be rich, but you’ll eat steak a lot.’ He was right. We don’t make much money, but we have fun,” Ken Stevenson said. 
Over the years they have made signs for several local businesses, such as Pete’s Scoop on Route 28 — including the giant ice-cream cone and banana split; the entrance sign for Canobie Lake Park, along with seasonal specialty paint jobs, including their Halloween Screeemfest d├ęcor; and Dunlap’s Ice Cream in Seabrook. 
“Everybody we’ve done work for comes back. Only problem is, a business only needs so many signs, and if they’re made right, they don’t wear out very fast,” said Ken Stevenson. 
“We’re going on faith, starting something based on an idea. We really don’t know if they’ll sell, but we think they will.We’renotsurewhat’sgoing to happen, but we’re keeping busy — after all these years of doing what we do, it’s exciting to adventure into new territory, making our own product,” she said. 
The Stevensons are holding an open house on Oct. 30 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at their homebased business at 4 Desmarais Avenue. For information call 432-1753. 

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